All day I have been buffeted by a terrible nostalgia for everything Argentine and long gone, for my grandmother’s beautiful and varied cooking, for the shape of her fingers (one bent due to a kitchen mishap, another with its tip sliced off), for the all-encompassing feeling of arriving at her kitchen surrounded by cousins. I blame all this on my old friend Hernán, who last night for no earthly reason posted a shameless list of classic Argentine hits from the mid-eighties.
My grandmother Clari was the sort who sent you to the vegetable patch to unearth potatoes if you wanted gnocchi for lunch, and who all but burnt our small flat down when, on a visit once to Geneva—and wanting me to eat proper, homemade dulce de leche—set the big Le Creuset pot on a low fire and settled in for a nap. She died ten years ago, and I’ve been missing her awfully.
It’s easy to get really great empanadas on almost any Buenos Aires block, and in the past decade regional empanadas (especially those hailing from Tucumán, Salta, and Mendoza) have really gussied up the offerings—but nothing quite has the flavor of Clari’s homemade empanadas. I have a tiny black notebook in which she wrote out some recipes for me, and the only thing that stands out, possibly apart from the alchemy and other ethers, is the combination of flavours created by combining plumped raisins, green olives, and cumin, and the specific texture and juiciness of the hand-cut beef. Don’t take a shortcut on this step. In terms of the effort you’ll put into it, it’s really not a big deal, but the results are incomparable to ground beef. If a shortcut is absolutely necessary here, make it by using premade dough for the empanada rounds. It won’t be the same, but it will be good enough, and not everyone has access to flaky beef back fat. But I really wouldn’t bother to make these with ground beef.
Clari baked her empanadas, and they’d emerge from the oven steaming and almost juicing over, just waiting for the first bite. But if anyone has a preference for frying, I’d say go for it. It’s got to be a great take on these. I recommend a nice Malbec and a late afternoon breeze to accompany the empanadas.
NOTE: You can play with the amounts of cumin, coriander, oregano, and pimentón to come up with your own best flavour.
The images are of my grandmother's kitchen, her standing in front of the house (sometime in the fifties, I'm guessing), of our woodburning empanada and pizza oven, and a generic image of empanadas. —nogaga
Test Kitchen Notes
Beef fat should be easy to find for those who live near cattle-rearing communities. However, for the rest of us, shortening will do. Feel free to halve this entire recipe if feeding a smaller crowd—though you may appreciate the leftovers. —Stephanie Bourgeois
- Serves lots
- Dough for empanadas
fine sea salt
8 1/2 ounces
flaky beef fat, rendered and cooled, or other fat or oil
2 1/2 cups
- Filling for empanadas
green olives, then some
excellent fillet of beef
spring onions, sliced
rendered and cooled beef fat
salt and pepper, to taste
1 1/2 teaspoons
1 1/2 teaspoons
sweet pimentón or paprika
- For the dough: mix the flour, salt, and cooled rendered fat. Add water as you mix the ingredients, until the mass holds together and becomes a smooth dough. Knead only until it holds its own shape well, wrap in plastic wrap, and allow an hour to rest at room temp. When you're ready, divide into manageable portions and roll out into a thin layer, about 1/4 inch thick. Cut into disks, 3 to 4 inches in diameter. Keep these disks humid by stacking them with with plastic wrap between each disk and covering the entire pile. You can refrigerate these while making the filling.
- For the filling: First, the mise en place: Hydrate the raisins in water or red wine and set aside. Remove the pits from the green olives, dice, and set aside. Boil the eggs for about 8 minutes, let cool, peel, and chop and set aside. Finely chop the beef into thin, small slices resembling what you might be served at a fine Parisian bistro if you asked for a good beef tartare, a pile of distinct beef shavings far from a mash. Please enjoy this last step thoroughly!
- Finely chop the spring onions, onion, and deveined green pepper. Melt the rendered beef fat in a large pot and begin to gently soften the onions and pepper. You do not want them in any way to crisp. Crush the coriander seeds and add them along with salt, pepper, cumin, and oregano. Add tomato paste and sugar.
- Add the beef and mix while it begins to cook, until it loses its raw color. Add the olives and raisins.
- Add chopped cooked eggs and pimentón, mix very gently, and check that the seasoning is to your taste. Allow the filling to cool before forming the empanadas.
- Preheat your oven to 400° F. Remove dough disks from fridge and allow to reach room temperature. Place a little more than a tablespoon of filling on one side of each disk and fold the other half over it, sealing the edges with water and neat folds, as if you were crimping a pie.
- These are best made on a pizza stone, but use what you've got. If you are using a plain baking sheet, I'd recommend sprinkling with some polenta before placing the empanadas on top. These normally need to bake for about 20 to 25 minutes, and emerge succulent and piping hot.